Gail Collins: America has its own oligarchs

Published: Thursday, Mar. 6, 2014 - 10:00 am

The Koch brothers are in the news more than Justin Bieber.

This week, the billionaire siblings from Kansas made the top 10 in Forbes’ list of wealthiest people on the planet. In fact, if you lump Charles and David Koch together, they’re No. 1. Meanwhile, in the U.S. Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid embarked on a rampage of anti-Koch speeches, denouncing the brothers as cancer-causing polluters who pour unlimited money into conservative political campaigns in an “un-American” attempt to subvert democracy.

Then Charles Koch gave an interview to The Wichita Business Journal! I know, I know. But given the supreme lowness of the brothers’ low profile, it was an electric moment.

“Somebody has got to work to save the country and preserve a system of opportunity,” Koch said, explaining his late-life calling as the nation’s premier right-wing megadonor.

My question for today is: Do you think it’s fair to call these guys oligarchs? We have been thinking about oligarchs lately since our attention has been fixed on the former Soviet Union, which is Oligarch Central. In fact, the new Ukrainian government just responded to the tensions in its eastern region by dispatching two billionaires to serve as provincial governors.

“Oligarch” sounds more interesting than “superrich person with undue political influence.” The Koch brothers have a genius for being publicly boring, while plowing vast sums of money into political action groups designed to make it difficult for anybody to make a good estimate of how much they’ve given to promote their goal of, um, saving the country.

Maybe it would help focus the public mind if we started referring to them as the Wichita oligarchs.

We do need to focus. The country has had very rich folks trying to influence national policy forever. But these days they seem to be getting very richer by the moment, and thanks to the Supreme Court, there’s no longer any real lid on what they can spend.

Who would you want to count as an oligarch? I’d definitely vote for any billionaires who underwrite campaigns against environmental regulation while their company shows up as No. 14 on the list of Toxic 100 Air Polluters. We’re looking at you, Kochs. (Thank you for the information, Political Economy Research Institute, University of Massachusetts.)

Michael Bloomberg? Bloomberg bought himself 12 years as New York City mayor; his final election cost him more than $100 million, or $174 per vote, which sounds pretty darn oligarchic. Although when it comes to promoting a political career, being mayor will get you a good seat at a large number of parades.

Warren Buffett? He’s richer than any individual Koch. But, I’m sorry. I do not see an oligarch running around demanding that the government raise his taxes.

I would definitely have voted for the late Harry Simmons of Texas, who donated $31 million to political action committees in the last presidential election cycle. The collapse of campaign finance laws was a big time-saver for Simmons, whose estranged daughter once said that he gave her $1,000 for each blank political contribution card she signed. But Simmons died last year, as did Bob Perry, a billionaire Texas Realtor who shared Simmons’ enthusiasm for that Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry.

“The question we’re asking is: who’s going to fill the oligarch vacuum?” said Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice. “And what do you call the level right under oligarchs? We’ve got plenty of them.”

What comes below oligarchs? I guess mini-garchs. And below them, microgarchs. If you have a chance, try to refer to Donald Trump as a microgarch. It will drive him crazy.

But back to the real money: How about Paul Singer? He’s a hedge fund billionaire who’s sort of famous as the conservative donor who supports gay rights. As oligarchs go, however, he has a troubled track record: Rudy Giuliani in 2008, Chris Christie in 2012, Chris Christie, um, now.

Tom Steyer? This is another hedge fund billionaire. He’s also an environmental activist who’s investing $100 million in a fund to reward politicians who support climate change legislation and punish those who don’t. The Center for Public Integrity, which dubs Steyer’s new fund a “single-issue vanity super PAC,” is not a fan. But at least he’s not crusading for healthier hedge funds.

Sheldon Adelson? You remember Sheldon Adelson. He’s the billionaire casino owner who’s currently funding a campaign to combat online gambling. Adelson claims he’s propelled by a “moral standard,” which apparently involves saving betters from losing money in any venue that does not involve going to a casino. But we will always remember him as the guy who invested more than $16 million in the presidential prospects of Newt Gingrich.

This is truly only the billionaire beginning. Feel free to offer nominees. But don’t get carried away. We want to be selective here. Start calling everybody an oligarch and it won’t be special anymore. It'll just be like calling them lobbyists.

Read more articles by Gail Collins



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